Monthly Archives: March 2007

Spring Break 07 – Washington DC

All work and no play makes Jack (and Melanie) a dull boy, so we took off last weekend for a trip to Washington DC in celebration of the start of Spring Break at WVU. We’ll be doing the more traditional break activities (wet T shirt contest, Jello body shots, balcony surfing) at home on the deck in the woods where only the deer, turkeys, and other such critters can laugh at us.

Washington Monument

Our day on the Mall found cool temperatures and low clouds. We were expecting the Cherry Blossom Festival and instead we got a grey day with light rain. It makes for fast walking, but interesting pictures of the Washington Monument.

If you’re familiar with DC and the Mall you can tell that we took the Metro to the Smithsonian stop. I love this part of the Mall because of the Freer Gallery. They hang one of John Singer Sargent’s most compelling oils, “Breakfast in the Loggia.” Light traffic in the museum gave me 15 minutes of uninterrupted viewing, just leaning against the opposite wall.

Of course, the Freer has an excellent collection of Whistler’s work. I like most of his work for different reasons. The symphony in white series is lovely beyond my words. The image here doesn’t do justice to the brushstrokes in this particular work. If you ever get to Washington DC and you like paintings, you must visit the Freer just so you can see how the brushstrokes create the effects.

And, then, there’s the Peacock room. The only reason I’d like to have a LOT of money is to create rooms like this for myself and Melanie. That, and a private jet and a chaffeur. Otherwise, we’re still living in the woods, scaring the critters with our silly Spring Break games.

The Freer is also featuring a ceramics exhibition, “Parade,” as designed by Gwyn Hansson Pigott. I am not a ceramics and pottery kind of guy and usually I think of them as pretty ashtrays (yes, I am a clod and if it didn’t kill you, I’d still be chain smoking Lucky filterless cigarettes), but this exhibition struck me like a slap in the face. Normally museums display vases, pottery, ceramics, etc. with a fairly staid, educational method and a long print description of the materials, technique, period, artist, yada-yada, kill me now, Lord, where’s an empty chair I can use? Pigott’s Parade, however, is an installation performance of art using ceramic objects. She is an active ceramic artist herself and was given free access to the Freer’s collection of such objects mainly from Asia, but also the Near East. Pigott selected pieces, then created artistic arrangements of them. These photos cannot do justice to the display. For the first time in my long life of looking at art, ceramics hit me in the asthetic guts. Gwyn Hansson Pigott’s Parade is simply one of the most beautiful and compelling works of “installation” art I’ve ever seen.

Outside the Smithsonian buildings is another kind of art, the gardens. Late March is still a bit early for the full performance, but even this early in spring, the gardens are lovely and blooming. These shots were taken after one of our favorite activities, eating. We’d found a “meals on wheels” stand behind the Smithsonian gardens. Hmmmm, hot dogs.

Here’s a shot of Melanie on our first afternoon. We’re eating at Raku’s noodle shop, just across from our hotel, Jury’s (if you look behind Melanie’s left shoulder you might be able to make out the logo on the building). I found out about Jury’s from my work with the Brookings Institution. It’s the hotel they use for their guests. The hotel is right on Dupont Circle which is a fabulous DC neighborhood. Lots of shopping, lots of book stores, and some great food and drink. Like this shot.

Me and my martini with three really big and tasty green olives. I don’t want to sound extreme, but Jury’s bar serves some of the best olives I’ve ever had in a vodka martini. Sometimes big green olives are a bit rough and chewy, but these were like chocolate. Vodka News: my nephew, Clif, who is a professional chef, recommended that I try Svedka vodka. I did. If you like vodka, give it a try. It has that smooth taste, feel, and bite of a premium brand like Grey Goose, but costs only one third as much. Back to the entertainment.

Obelisk is the best restaurant in Washington DC and maybe the best in the US. I hesitate to tell anyone about it because it is a small room and can be a tough reservation.

The chef clearly is not interested in getting big because this place has been around for awhile now and it is the same this time as it was the first time we ate there 10 or 15 years ago. This shot gives you some sense of how small the place is (36 seats).

We had a bottle of Chianti, a great 5 course appetizer round, a fabulous raviolini secondi, and an outstanding sea bass for the entre, all followed by a tangerine cake and fruit with a sabayon sauce. But the real treat was a burrata cheese appetizer. They’ve been doing this one for a couple of years now and I hope they never stop serving it. You can read more about this new, modern Italian cheese, but you’d really rather eat it. Burrata is a bit like buffalo mozz cheese, only better, if you can believe that.

But, the best reason to visit Washington DC is what it means. Everytime I visit the Mall I feel proud to be an American. One of my favorite views of the Mall is from the stairs of the Capitol looking down to the Washington Monument. When I had my first trip to DC after becoming an administrator at NIOSH/CDC, I remember standing on those stairs and feeling differently than previous trips. I felt a sense of responsibility and commitment. I also remember standing on those stairs shortly after September 11, 2001 when I was called to DC on “lessons learned” planning. The Mall was very quiet and nearly empty even though it was a lovely Fall day. The sense of responsibility and commitment was even stronger then. And even though today was a cool, misty day, the Mall was crowded with people and families. And there was a demonstration at the Pool across from the Capitol with people shouting through a loudspeaker in many different languages . . . America is a helluva thing.

God bless America.

CSPI Drops Their Persuasion Pants and Insults the Great Chinese People

Today the good people at Center for Science in the Public Interest offer us Chinese Food (Part Deux). If you pay close attention to news or else live in the food wars of postmodern nutrition, you’ll recall Part Une from 1993 when CSPI captured headlines with its first expose on Chinese food. If you missed that headline: FAT!!! The CSPI message caused quite a stir back then in 1993 when we were still naïve about the dangers of food and thought that eating was a risk-free activity. Now, thanks to the good folks at CSPI and their brothers and sisters, we know that food is bad for you in virtually all forms and that if you eat, you will surely die. Unless you subscribe to the Nutrition Action Newsletter (now only $10 a year) in which case you will still surely die, just more slowly.

Part Deux rediscovers what CSPI discovered with Part Une in 1993: FAT!!! However, like the good persuasion agents they aspire to be, they know you can’t simply say the same thing over and over again, so they pushed their crime scene investigation tactics harder to discover: SALT!!! And, what’s even trickier about those Chinese food folks is that they hide that FAT and SALT in the VEGETABLES, thus hitting the Trifecta of Perfect Sin in postmodern nutrition. Vegans around the world are reeling. FAT and SALT in their beloved Chinese VEGETABLES?!? Add a zest of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, bake in the oven of Global Warming, and you’ve got the Perfect Storm. Why do you even get out of bed?

CSPI ain’t what it used to be and it’s curious to ask why. When they first made the scene in the early 1990s, they could dominate the mediascape like the Rolling Stones, Apple Computer, or Nike. And this was way back in the day before cell phones, Internet, and cable TV. Right? Just 3 TV channels and the elite print media that you could count on fingers. Today any fool can capture somebody’s attention through YouTube, but 15 years ago you had to be Mick Jagger to jump on the top of the heap. And CSPI did it with its fabulous PR tricks on restaurant food. And movie theater popcorn. And Italian food – remember the heart attack on a plate, fettucini Alfredo? Boy, those were the days. And, weren’t those guys at CSPI all that? And now . . . nothing but second acts and all the postmodern hipsters still quote Fitzgerald from the 1920s on that: There are no second acts in American life.

What happened?

First, realize that we are talking persuasion here. Yeah, there’s all that eat and you will surely die scripture, but the text is meaningless without persuasion because if you declare truth in the woods and there’s no one there to hear it . . . the spotted owls will not nest. Stated more directly and sincerely – CSPI cannot do good without persuasion despite its good intentions, good science, and good donors.

Second, realize that we are talking about a group that once could dominate the media agenda in a most charming fashion. CSPI invented postmodern nutrition advocacy. In the 1990s you couldn’t swing a handful of overcooked pasta without hitting a CSPI warning piped directly through the mainstream media and now they are just another fish swimming in the sea. If CSPI really is a center for science and if science is irrresistible, then food science is a killer persuasion app. Just do some flashy PR to generate Reception in the Standard Model, and the rest is the science of falling off a log as persuasion gravity pulls everyone to the ground once the CSPI PR has gotten you on the top of the ladder. Without them, we’re all pining away for the day of their mentor, Ralph Nader, and unsafe at any speed headlines and spotlights, although after that little incident in 2000 maybe it’s best to leave Mr. Nader out of the picture.

Third, realize that the science of nutrition in no way supports or even needs the PR politics of postmodern nutrition. The Western World has known since Genesis that if you eat, you will surely die, and, as a Big Message, science really doesn’t have much to add to that except technical terminology, bar charts, and an insatiable demand for public funding. Seriously, name the new, Holy Cow! I Had No Idea, contributions of nutrition research beyond the standard Leave It To Beaver advice from mom about eating? Stated another way, if postmodern nutrition did not exist, how would the world be worse?

All together then, realize that groups like CSPI are exemplars par excellence of applied persuasion and can be understood, analyzed, and evaluated from that light. Let us begin.

Let’s start with a weaker argument: Consider the title of their Part Deux effort on Chinese food: “Wok Carefully.”

How clever. When doing research on Chinese food, let’s mock Chinese pronunciation of English words with an ironic title. Why don’t they work in images of bound feet, top knots, and opium dens? CSPI has always tried to lead the PC curve and here they are defaming a nationality, a racial and ethnic group, and an ancient tradition of cooking. Can you imagine the PR folks at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association coming out with something like, “Wok Carefully?” Okay, since CSPI has good PC credentials, this one will slide under the radar, but it is still bad persuasion to mock nationalities and peoples and even if no one in the chattering classes (except, gulp, me) is pointing this out, believe me, it is still having a negative psychological effect. And worse still, it is a bomb waiting to explode. Think about some anti-CSPI zealot showing up at an event with someone dressed like a Hollywood stereotyped coolie carrying a sign, “Wok Carefully.”

Now, consider a stronger argument: The political environment of the early 1990s. CSPI scored its greatest successes with a Democratic Congress and White House. Please keep your shirt on and think about this. As one of the Rules state, “Great persuaders don’t need rich uncles, kindness from strangers, or third party vote splitters.” CSPI was supposed to be a great persuader in part because they had both science and great skill. If you’ve got these qualities it doesn’t matter who’s President or who controls Congress. You’ve got the Truth, baby, and the Moves to present it. And in 1993, CSPI looked like it had the Truth and the Moves. Except, that as the political winds changed, so did the impact of CSPI. This is not possible if you are a Great Persuader especially when armed with the Truth of postmodern nutrition science.

Finally, consider the “science” in all of this. No one argues about the science of gravity and its implications when standing on the top of a tall, rickety ladder. If you doubt gravity, please jump at your pleasure to prove your pudding. Right now, a lot of people are claiming they understand “gravity” (e.g. nutrition science, human-caused global climate change, diets that save everyone’s life, and we can’t forget: HRT for menopausal women), but when they jump off the ladder no one falls, because there is no gravity and there is no science . . . just advocacy and sincere persuasion efforts.

I’ll leave you with a homework lesson. You’ll need to collect data on this and analyze it. There’ll be a lotta math and maybe some science, too.

The hypothesis you’ll test: CSPI helped create the obesity epidemic in America.

Look at the population statistics on American weight status. Before CSPI hit the big time in the early 1990s Americans were maintaining a largely healthy weight status (typically measured with BMI which you can read all about). After CSPI finds the media spotlight and vaults into Congressional hearings and markups, then American waistlines expand dramatically. Think about that. Before CSPI’s media magic, BMIs are good. After CSPI, America gets real fat. I’m hypothesizing perhaps for the First Time in Modern History that an advocacy organization made things worse for its advocacy and that life would have been better (leaner and gentler) without the advocacy. Advocacy that both invents problems and offers failed solutions to problems that would have never occurred without the advocacy! Sounds like AARP, doesn’t it?

If you eat, you will surely die.

An Online Survey Opportunity

Katy at Sway, Inc. contacted me about conducting surveys of people taking online courses for their use of various social media Internet sites. I took the survey myself – which they should probably throw out because of my Biblical age and painful lack of experience with MySpace – and it looks legit. You don’t have to provide your email address so unless the folks at SurveyMonkey who are running the survey have invented some new nefarious spam tactic, you might want to give it a try. I am not involved with Sway or SurveyMonkey (although I like both company names) and receive no professional or consulting benefit from your participation. Katy did promise that she would send me a “reward” but if you’ve read the Primer, you know just how ambiguous that term can be. My mom used to reward me with her famous “German chocolate cake” that tasted like a cross between boiled cabbage and a Hershey bar left in back seat of the car. I’ll keep you posted on Katy’s reward.

Here’s the survey link.

And, Mom, I really love your German chocolate cake. Really. It doesn’t taste anything like cabbage. I was just making a joke to appear hip and groovy for the kids. But, next time I’m back home, let’s just get a Joan Murphy cheeseburger instead.